These are a few of the true-life historical figures that inspired the NORTH: The Musical. Some of them even made their way into the story!
Henrietta Duterte was born to an affluent, free black family and raised in Philadelphia. She was a funeral home owner, philanthropist, and abolitionist and was the first American woman to own a mortuary.
Her mortuary also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Henrietta would hid freedom seekers in her coffins or disguised them as part of funeral processions.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1822. She is best remembered as one of America’s most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery in early 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Tubman gained international acclaim during her lifetime as an Underground Railroad agent, abolitionist, Civil War spy and nurse, suffragist, and humanitarian. Disabled by a near fatal head injury while enslaved, Tubman rose above horrific childhood adversity to emerge with a will of steel. Owing her success to unique survival techniques honed in the forests, fields and marshes of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tubman transcended victimization to achieve personal and physical freedom from her oppressors.
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger. “
-Harriet Tubman, 1896
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
William Still is best known for his self-published book The Underground Railroad (1872) where he documented the stories of formerly enslaved Africans who gained their freedom by escaping bondage.
Still’s The Underground Railroad is the only first person account of Black activities on the Underground Railroad written and self-published by an African American. He was also the director of a complex network of abolitionists, sympathizers and safe houses that stretched from Philadelphia to what is now Southern Ontario. He has been called the “Father of the Underground Railroad.”
Henriette Díaz DeLille was a Louisiana Creole of Color and Catholic nun from New Orleans. Her father was a white man from France, her mother was a "quadroon" (1/4 African American), and her grandfather came from Spain. She founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1836 and served as their first Mother Superior. The sisters are the second-oldest surviving congregation of African-American nuns.
The term 'Maroon' refers to enslaved people who ran away from slave owners and remained in the south to join or establish independent, hidden settlements. Maroons utilized the area's topography to evade capture.
Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings.
John Brown was a leading figure in the abolitionist movement in the pre-Civil War United States. Unlike many anti-slavery activists, he was not a pacifist and believed in aggressive action against slaveholders and any government officials who enabled them.
An entrepreneur who ran tannery and cattle trading businesses prior to the economic crisis of 1839, Brown became involved in the abolitionist movement following the brutal murder of Presbyterian minister and anti-slavery activist Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837. He said at the time, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
Levi Coffin was born in North Carolina on October 28, 1798 into a Quaker family who greatly influenced by the teachings of John Woolman a Quaker preacher, who believed slaveholding was not compatible with the Quaker beliefs and advocated emancipation. Growing up in the South, Coffin was frequently exposed to those enslaved throughout his childhood and sympathized with their condition.
By the age of 15, William was helping his family assist escaping those enslaved by giving them food and shelter on their farm. In 1821, William became a teacher and opened up a school for the enslaved to teach them how to read, though it was not successful as the owners of the enslaved would not permit the enslaved to attend. In 1826, he moved to Indiana and over the next 20 years he assisted more than 2,000 enslaved persons escape bondage, so many that his home was known as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad."
Thomas Garrett is best known for his tireless efforts in behalf of the abolition of slavery. His first endeavor started at age twenty-four, by rescuing a kidnapped, free Black woman who was to be sold into slavery in the South. After this episode in his life, he was determined that his life’s work must be to help and defend enslaved African Americans.
From this time forward, Garrett never failed to assist any freedom seeker and his efforts on their behalf were well known. He is credited with helping well over 2,500 fugitive enslaved persons in their journey to freedom.
Quakers played a huge role in the formation of the Underground Railroad, with George Washington complaining as early as 1786 that a “society of Quakers, formed for such purposes, have attempted to liberate” a neighbor’s slave. Anti-slavery sentiment was particularly prominent in Philadelphia, where Isaac Hopper, a convert to Quakerism, established what one author called “the first operating cell of the abolitionist underground.” In addition to hiding runaways in his own home, Hopper organized a network of safe havens and cultivated a web of informants so as to learn the plans of fugitive hunters of the enslaved. Though a tailor by trade, he also excelled at exploiting legal loopholes to win enslaved people's freedom in court. A friend of Joseph Bonaparte, the exiled brother of the former French emperor, Hopper moved to New York City in 1829. There, he continued helping those enslaved escape, at one point fending off an anti-abolitionist mob that had gathered outside his Quaker bookstore.
Most enslaved runaways fled to freedom in the dead of night, often pursued by barking bloodhounds. A few fugitives, such as Henry “Box” Brown who mailed himself north in a wooden crate, devised clever ruses or stowed away on ships and wagons. One of the most ingenious escapes was that of a married couple from Georgia, Ellen and William Craft, who traveled in first-class trains, dined with a steamboat captain and stayed in the best hotels during their escape to Philadelphia and freedom in 1848. Ellen, a quadroon with very fair skin, disguised herself as a young white cotton planter traveling with his enslaved person (William). It was William who came up with the scheme to hide in plain sight, but ultimately it was Ellen who convincingly masked her race, her gender and her social status during their four-day trip. Despite the luxury accommodations, the journey was fraught with narrow escapes and heart-in-the-mouth moments that could have led to their discovery and capture. Courage, quick thinking, luck and “our Heavenly Father,” sustained them, the Crafts said in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, the book they wrote in 1860 chronicling the escape.
George DeBaptiste was a prominent African-American conductor on the Underground Railroad in southern Indiana and Detroit, Michigan. While Michigan was a free state, refugee enslaved people often preferred to continue to Canada to get beyond the reach of United States fugitive enslaved laws. DeBaptiste was considered the president of the local underground railroad group. During this period, he purchased a lake steamboat for carrying fugitives across the Detroit River to Amherstburg, Ontario.
Historians have estimated that DeBaptiste and close collaborator William Lambert secured passage of hundreds of enslaved people, of the estimated 30,000 enslaved who settled in Canada.
In the late 1850s, DeBaptiste worked with nationally known abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown. During the American Civil War, DeBaptiste helped recruit black soldiers from Michigan for the Union Army. After the wars he continued to work for African-American civil rights, helping gain admission of black children to Detroit public schools.